Apple’s Strategy with Final Cut Pro X


Apple made a bold departure from its previous Final Cut Pro offerings with the release of Final Cut Pro X to the dismay of at least some members of the professional community. Learn more about what may be behind Apple’s strategy with this release.

Let's Begin:

Apple Final Cut Pro X time slate style logoIn April 2011, Apple showed off a sneak peek preview of the new version of its premiere video editing program Final Cut Pro to the Final Cut Pro Users Group at the NAB show in Las Vegas. Apple dubbed it Final Cut Pro X even though the previous version was only number 7 as a way of saying what an advancement they felt it was. This new version exhibited a bold new interface design which clearly wowed the crowd in attendance. However, when the software was released in mid-summer, many long time Apple editing aficionados expressed dismay, and even outrage, at the many missing features compared to previous versions of the venerable video editing program. Since a number of the features that were omitted from Final Cut Pro X are critical to the professional editor, some even denigrated the product saying it should have been called “iMovie Pro” instead to express their feeling that the new version is a step down from previous versions. (For a more in depth look at the differences introduced with Final Cut Pro X, see Final Cut Pro X First Impressions.)

In response to the often disparaging commentary on their new design for Final Cut, Apple took the unusual step of releasing an FAQ to address some of the concerns of the community. While the FAQ does answer a few questions about missing features, such as the fact that multi-cam editing will return in the next major update of the product, it still leaves open the whole area as to what Apple’s long term strategy is with Final Cut Pro and why they choose to introduce a complete redesign of it instead of the incremental updates and new features that users have come to expect. As an experienced and long time Apple user with about 20 years experience with the Apple brand, here are my opinions and analysis as to why Apple chose this route and what Apple’s strategy could be with Final Cut Pro X.

The 80/20 Rule

The first thing we need to talk about is the 80/20 rule. This is one of those generalized rules of thumb that is often true in the world for a variety of different things. When applied to computers and software products, the rule says that for a given product, generally speaking, 80% of the users will use less than 20% of the features. To illustrate this with a quick example: all modern web browsers offer the ability to organize bookmarks into folders, however it’s been found that hardly any users ever take advantage of the feature.  They’re content to have one big collection of unorganized bookmarks and don’t wish to spend the effort to organize them further, nor do they wish to spend the time to even learn how to do so. In other words, bookmark folders is one of the browser features that 80% of the users never use. When you compile a list of all the user features that browsers offer, everything thing from menu items, options, obscure preference settings, keyboard shortcuts and so on, you’ll find that about 80% of the users actually utilize only about 20% of the features. And when you get to even more complex applications like Adobe Photoshop, you will quickly find that the rule gets even more extreme and around 90% of the users use less than 10% of the features. (For the curious, the 80/20 rule is basically a corollary of bell curves which represent probability distributions where random variables tend to cluster around a mean. Bell curves occur with extreme regularity in nature and are a good approximation for distributions, and hence naturally makes a good rule of thumb approximation of many situations.)

The single most important thing that few people comprehend is that Apple, and more specifically Steve Jobs and his team at the top, understand the 80/20 rule better than just about any other company on the planet. In fact, it never ceases to amaze me how few people understand this simple rule. I’ve met Apple critics and read many articles complaining about Apple whose authors show a total and complete lack of both understanding and appreciation for the 80/20 rule. Since this is so important, let me say it again: Apple understands the 80/20 rule better than just about any other company in the world.

Ask yourself why Apple was so successful with the iPod. It’s certainly not because it has more features than the competitors because it doesn’t. After all, you can’t even swap out the battery, which many critics predicted would be the death knell for the iPod when it was first introduced. Competitors tried to out-do Apple by offering more features and all of them have completely failed to displace the iPod from the number 1 spot in the mp3 player market. The fact that all these competitors and all the critics think it’s just about how many features a product offers shows how far detached from reality they are. Instead, here’s exactly why Apple has been so successful with the iPod: the iPod is successful because Apple studied mp3 players and figured out the 20% of the features that 80% of the users actually use, and then they figured out how to implement those features better than anyone else was able to do. With this they basically discarded nearly all the other features that hardly anyone ever uses. By removing the clutter of unused features and focusing all the effort in outperforming everyone else on the features that actually matter, Apple made a world class mp3 that to this day commands an untouchably huge market share.

Apple repeated this formula with the iPhone. When the iPhone was introduced, it lacked many features that Blackberries, for instance, had at the time, and again naive critics condemned it to failure. But of course exactly the opposite happened because Apple focused on the 20% of the features that 80% of the users actually want to use and implemented them in an innovative and bold new way that was blindingly simple to use compared to other so called “smart” phones of the time such that it completely blew the Blackberry out of the water. Just look at the stock price of RIM and see it’s rapid decline since the introduction of the iPhone.  Again, we see that feature count doesn’t matter when predicting the long term success of a product. It’s all about whether you implemented the key features that 80% of the users want to use in a way that makes the product easy and accessible, and that’s one of the things that Apple does so well.

This of course is not to say that Apple is always right. The Apple TV product is good example showing that Apple has yet to hit the mark on finding the 80/20 split on what most users want in this space. Still, this is what they try to achieve and you’ll notice that the latest incarnation of the product has slimmed it down, trimmed out features and made it easier to use. And it’s the best version of the product yet.

Final Cut Pro’s Turn

So what does any of this have to do with Final Cut Pro? In my opinion, Apple’s new direction with Final Cut Pro X perfectly reflects the essence of the 80/20 rule. It appears quite evident to me that Apple wants to make a high end video editing product that excels at doing what 80% of the potential customer base for advanced video editing wants to do, and Apple is going to do this by focusing on the 20% of the features that these users most need to use and implement those features in an outstanding way. If you take a look at my First Impressions article, you’ll see quite a few things that I think Final Cut Pro X does better than its predecessor, and I think that represents a real step forward. I for one am glad to see that Apple is taking the time to redo things under a better infrastructure rather than just tacking on more features as has been done in past releases.  Just take a look at a product like Adobe Photoshop: each release brings more and more features that are added in with everything else that was already there, and the result is that the app gets more and more complicated to learn and to use.

So rather than adding more features to Final Cut that 80% of the users probably won’t ever use, Apple is instead making the product better overall for that 80% segment of the market and making it so that the product does a better job at serving the 80%.  It does that by making it easier to learn and easier to accomplish the main tasks that need to be done in digital video editing.

Digital Film Making for Everyone

But there is also a shift in the customer base itself that I believe Apple is responding to as well. The change-over to digital cameras and their plummeting prices year over year has brought the tools for high definition digital film making into reach of just about anyone with enough desire to get involved. Today, $1000 will get you a really good digital SLR still camera that can also shoot really great high definition video as well, which brings high quality film making tools to the advanced amateur market. There’s a huge potential market here for video editing tools that I think Apple wants to tap into. Just think about it: for every one professional editor at a company like Dreamworks, there are probably 10,000 or maybe even 100,000 advanced ameteurs and budding film makers who need to edit their projects. That’s a huge potential market for Apple to sell Final Cut into and I think the redesign of Final Cut Pro X reflects a retargeting of the product for this larger market. In that regard, it may indeed be right to think about Final Cut Pro X as a sort of “iMovie Pro” that targets people whose needs are beyond what iMovie alone can do.  I also think that Apple’s aggressive $299 price point for Final Cut Pro X also reflects their desire to go after this larger market of film makers.

Also of note is Apple’s inclusion of a rolling shutter correction capability in the product and the ability to sync based on separate audio.  Rolling shutter artifacts are a side effect of the CMOS sensors in digital SLRs and including a correction filter in Final Cut tells you Apple wants to address that market. And because DSLRs have poor built in mics, recording separate audio is also quite common which again Final Cut Pro X addresses.

And of course more importantly than just selling copies of Final Cut, this new market based on affordable digital cameras has the potential of greatly increasing Mac sales as these new film makers find that this platform has just what they want to get their work done. So by targeting this market rather than the ultra high end that Final Cut has strived to address in the past, Apple has the potential of greatly increasing their Mac sales which of course is where Apple makes a good portion of their overall revenue.  Moving Final Cut Pro to address this market just makes an enormous amount of sense from the business prospective.

The Other 20%

Given that Apple likes to focus on the 80% of the user base for a given product, what does that mean for the other 20%? It means that Apple is quite willing to walk away from that segment of market. For example, there is a segment of the cell phone market that will not buy a cell phone that doesn’t have a battery that you can change on the go, and Apple is quite willing to walk away from those customers and let them go to a competitor. I think Apple is doing the same with Final Cut: for those ultra high end editors that need those features that most other people don’t use, Apple appears to be willing to let them go to one of the competing products. And while Apple has said in the FAQ that some important features will be returning in future updates, my feeling is that Apple won’t be going out of their way to appease very small segments of the video editing community by adding in esoteric features.

While Apple’s apparent new focus for Final Cut will certainly upset those in the ultra high end niche of the editing world, it makes a lot of sense from a business perspective. Companies that attempt to make products that are all things to all people are generally doomed to failure.  Adding all the features necessary to appease everyone on your wish list means making many compromises in the product design. Most often this results in a product that may do lots of different things, but it does them all in an equally poor fashion. Such an approach isn’t what Apple is about. Apple is about presenting a solution that satisfies large segments. If Apple can capture 80% of the advanced amateur and professional film maker market with the new direction for Final Cut, then I’m sure they’ll be very satisfied. With the dramatic drops in the price of digital cameras that will certainly continue on into the future, this could become a very large market and sell a lot of Macs as well.

“But It’s Different!”

It’s also important to acknowledge the ever present segment of the population that doesn’t like change. I think a portion of the complaints heard against FCP X are influenced by the fact that it’s now different. This means learning a new interface with new keyboard shortcuts and a new approach to video editing. There are definitely people who don’t like being faced with a new learning curve and will be vocal about it. Personally, I’ve never been afraid to learn something new. And frankly, those who don’t learn new things throughout their careers are the ones most likely to become unemployed.

One of the user comments on the Mac App Store for Final Cut Pro X I think expressed this well:

“People who are newer to video editing will love this immediately and a lot of people who are used to the tried and true ways will take longer to accept it. As a seasoned veteran, I can tell you that if you are willing to detach from everything that you already know about video editing, then Final Cut X is one heavenly piece of software. However, if you have a hard time discarding a lot of years of experience learning the interface you already know, then you will have a very hard time adjusting.” – posted by “post22.com” on June 21, 2011.

I think this is a good summation that explains at least some of the negative reaction to FCP X. To give an example that parallels this, recall that when the iPhone was introduced many critics complained about the lack of a physical keyboard. I remember them saying that there was no way that a smart phone could succeed without a physical keyboard. Turns out Apple was right to ignore the critics and to take a bold departure from traditional smart phone design, and almost all smart phones now use an onscreen keyboard like the iPhone.

The Bottom Line

To sum it all up, I believe Apple had several goals in mind with the new design for Final Cut Pro X. First, I truly believe that Apple wanted to make a better non-linear editor with a modern UI, the innovative trackless timeline, transparent background processing and the other improvements. They also wanted to improve the performance of the product by taking advantage of the multiple cores found in all their Macs. For a dot zero release of what is essentially a new piece of software, my opinion is that FCP X runs very well and is very responsive. I’ve encountered a few rough edges, but I’m confident these will be fixed in updates. Equal with this, I believe Apple also wanted to better address the proliferation of high quality DSLR still cameras that can also shoot HD video. These cameras are being used by advanced amateurs and in professional productions right now and this will only grow in the future. So I think there is some degree of retargeting Final Cut towards this potentially very large market segment (and hence profitable in terms of Mac sales).

FCP X is basically a whole new application, and to expect Apple to bring over ever single feature from FCP 7 is unreasonable since it would just take too long to do a software project of that magnitude. Though to the dismay of some of the FCP community, Apple’s decision to focus on the features that the bulk of the users actually use the most is definitely the right move when doing a re-architecture like this. And as Apple has stated in their FCP X FAQ, some of the most popular features from FCP 7, like multi-cam editing, will return in a future update. In fact, my guess is that most of the missing features will stage a comeback in one form or another over time, probably within in the next two major updates to FCP X.

In the meantime, of course, this means that professionals in need of the features that were left out of Final Cut Pro X will either have to stay with FCP 7 for now, or switch to a competing NLE product. In my opinion, Apple knows this and I’m sure they hope to woo those users back as FCP X matures. After all, there was an almost equal amount of negative comments when iMovie was re-architected, especially since it too lost some features when compared to its previous version. But iMovie has now matured and features have been added back in, and I think it’s now a better movie editing product than could have been achieved under the old architecture. I think the same will be true for Final Cut Pro X as it matures. And as what happened with the iPhone, my bet is that most of the competing NLE products will be copying Apple’s new approach for FCP in the coming years.

Category: Apple Final Cut Pro